Follett Higher Education Group, a subsidiary of Westchester, Ill.-based Follett Corporation, is on-track to take over the RPI Bookstore in mid-June. However, questions are being raised over the transparency of agreements made between that company and the Rensselaer Union.
According to Student Government officials and Union employees, Director of the Union Joe Cassidy is the Rensselaer Union representative for a contract with the Follett Corporation to provide bookstore services to campus, replacing the student-managed model that has been used up until this point.
The change was finalized during a closed-door Executive Board meeting, where the E-Board made an official, non-motion decision. No motions were passed during the meeting, circumventing Article V, section (4), subsection (1), of the E-Board bylaws, which states the following, “All meetings of the Executive Board shall be open to the public. The E-Board may close a meeting with a two-thirds vote. The E-Board can invite non-Board members to a closed meeting with a majority vote. All motions passed during the closed meeting must be made public immediately after the conclusion of the closed meeting.”
The E-Board meeting was conducted as closed-door due to the fact that negotiations were held under an non-disclosure agreement, as is customary for contracts under negotiation.
Consultants were brought in to do a full audit of the Bookstore as per a motion passed by the E-Board on May 8, 2014, with a budget of $26,500, plus expenses. The money was reportedly taken out of the Bookstore budget, rather than general Union reserves, as the motion states. Several months later, additional funds were sent to the consultants, again reportedly from the Bookstore budget; this money was matched by another Institute source. The E-Board currently has no procedure or policy for hiring outside consultants.
Union employees close to the issue confirmed that Vice President of Campus Bookstore Consultants Paul Schmalhofer and Group Vice President at Follett Corporation David Klein visited to discuss the Bookstore with Cassidy, which has been experiencing a decline in profits in past years.
Cassidy instructed all Union Administration employees to direct questioning parties to Vice President for Administration Claude Rounds. Some employees felt that they were deliberately kept out of discussions.
“We have been exploring the possibility of contract management of the Rensselaer Collegiate Store,” said Cassidy. “The Rensselaer Union Executive Board has been involved in this process. Currently, we are in contract negotiations with Follett Higher Education Group, the largest operator of collegiate stores. We anticipate that the contract will be finalized in the near future. An announcement with more details will be released at that time.”
Current employees of the Bookstore will reportedly have a one-year contract with Follett, after which continued employment will be at the company’s discretion; however, 16-year employee Traci Griffin recently resigned from her position.
According to the Rensselaer Union Constitution Article V: Director of the Union, it is not within the authority of the director to enter into any contracts on behalf of the Union without formal Executive Board approval. The Constitution is available at http://poly.rpi.edu/s/gexjh. Paragraph (3) of the same article also provides for charges to be brought against the director in cases of overstepping their constitutional authority. Many students have expressed concerns about the management and direction of the Bookstore, and they wish for decisions made go to through the proper channels and processes.
Both the Student Senate and the Union Executive Board met for their final meetings of the year at 8 pm on Tuesday, May 12 in Elsworth and Shelnutt Gallery, respectively. The motion, depicted in its final form below, was voted on by the body after multiple amendments and attempts at amendment by Senators. The major change from the initial motion, introduced by Class of 2018 Senator Justin Etzine, was the removal of sections that charged for Director Cassidy to be reviewed by the Executive Board for his role in the issue.
The motion failed 6-10-0. The roll call is as follows: those voting in the affirmative were Etzine ’18, Jennifer Freedberg ’18, Paul Ilori ’17, Jessica Krajewski ’16, Steven Sperazza ’18, and Samantha Notley ’18. Those who voted against the motion were Graduate Senator Mike Caiola, Keegan Caraway ’18, Graduate Senator Jen Church, Alex Fox ’16, Michael Han ’16, Graduate Senator Timothy Krentz, Bill Mehner ’16, Austin Miller ’17, Graduate Senator Spencer Scott, and Joe Venusto ’16.
Throughout the nearly two hour discussion on the presented motion, former President of the Union Erin Amarello ’15 provided information regarding the issue. She stressed that the contract, while virtually finalized, had not yet been officially signed, and she argued that it was the RPI Division of Finance, not the E-Board, that would be signing it. Amarello also noted that a large portion of the details associated with the contract could not be made available until it was signed because of the non-disclosure agreement. Finally, she stated that she found Cassidy’s role in the process to be an advocate for students and for improving the experience offered by the Union.
149th Grand Marshal Kyle Keraga ’15 also shared his input, advocating for the motion. He specifically argued that the problem with what occurred was that a decision was made by the E-Board, which should have been made in the form of an official motion. Keraga emphasized that the E-Board should not take action to circumvent this process even if it makes things easier for them or appears to be necessary to achieve standard business practices.
Many of those who voted no on the motion stated that they were under the impression that the E-Board did what was necessary to remain under this standard business practice when entering into a potential contract.
Editor’s note: To protect both students and employees who offered information to The Poly, sources’ names have been withheld. The Poly and its reporters believe that the facts, opinions, and concerns stated herein are legitimate. A previous version of this article was posted online on Tuesday, May 12, 2015.
The following is the text of the motion.
WHEREAS the Rensselaer Union takes pride in being one of the few student-run student unions in the country; and
WHEREAS the RPI Bookstore is currently operated and managed by the Rensselaer Union; and
WHEREAS the Rensselaer Union Student Senate and the Rensselaer Union Executive Board make decisions on behalf of the Rensselaer student body; and
WHEREAS the Rensselaer Union Executive Board engaged in secretive dialogue regarding the operation of the RPI Bookstore; and
WHEREAS, on or about Monday, April 27, 2015, RPI Bookstore employees were informed by Director of the Union Joseph Cassidy that an outside company, Follett Corporation, would be taking control of the RPI Bookstore on June 15, 2015; and
WHEREAS the Rensselaer Union Constitution, Article VII, Section 2, Paragraph (e), provides a clear procedure for the management of the business affairs of any and all facilities operated by the Rensselaer Union;
The Rensselaer Union 46th Student Senate hereby RESOLVES:
1. To emphasize the importance of maintaining open and transparent dialogue between Student Government and its constituents; and
2. To recommend that a formal review of the RPI Bookstore contract be taken by a joint ad-hoc committee between the Rensselaer Union Student Senate and Rensselaer Union Executive Board.
The motion failed 6-10-0. The roll call is as follows: those voting in the affirmative were Justin Etzine ’18, Jennifer Freedberg ’18, Paul Ilori ’17, Jessica Krajewski ’16, Steven Sperazza ’18, and Samantha Notley ’18. Those who voted against the motion were Graduate Senator Mike Caiola, Graduate Senator Jen Church, Keegan Caraway ’18, Alex Fox ’16, Michael Han ’16, Graduate Senator Timothy Krentz, Bill Mehner ’16, Austin Miller ’17, Graduate Senator Spencer Scott, and Joe Venusto ’16.